What I Know Now
On August 7th, 2016, I was en route to the airport in Austin, Texas to start making my way to my new home – Madrid, Spain. I had spent the last several months completing my certification to teach English as a foreign language and the last several weeks setting things aside to pack for my new life. A lot of time and effort had gone into this. And yet, in those final moments as our car approached the airport, I found myself thinking, “Do I want to move to Spain?” I’m sure it sounds absolutely ridiculous to say so, but I truly hadn’t thought about it before that moment. I pushed the thought away. My bags were packed, my tickets purchased, and I was going.
Obviously, there was a lot I didn’t know about Spain or Madrid. In fact, I’d hardly done any research on the city before I decided to move there. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that I was in for some culture shock upon my arrival. Although I was in for a bit of a rocky start, I learned a lot of lessons along the way. Read on and learn from my unpreparedness and ready yourself for life abroad – in Spain or anywhere new.
Number 1: Open Your Eyes; Learn from the World
I had an anthropology professor in college who used to say that people are the experts of their own lives. While I do think you should learn as much as you can about your new host culture before leaving home (don’t be me), I think taking a bit of a passive approach once you’re there can be very valuable. What I mean by that is this: learn from the people around you; let them teach you. Observe habits, customs, and cultural dos/don’ts. Culture is a funny thing. The people who know the most about one won’t be able to easily describe it to you. They live it – its something they feel. As an observer, you can start to put together the pieces that will help you understand life in your new home.
Number 2: Small Things Can Add Up – Don’t Let Them Get the Best of You
Whenever I’ve tried to explain the frustrations of living abroad to people who haven’t experienced it, I always find myself coming up short. It isn’t that a singular, small frustration is overwhelming. It’s the accumulation of lots of little things that feels that way. When my grocery store is out of cashews for days on end. When someone stands way too close to me on the metro. When I still have a hard time navigating a Spanish crowd. When I struggle to communicate my thoughts and feelings in everyday, and meaningful, conversations.
It’s the sum total of these and other experiences that can wear you down without you realizing it. We know, consciously, that these small experiences aren’t deal breakers for us. So we tend to dismiss them. But small irritations build up in us, and if we don’t confront how all of these little differences can feel to us, that’s when we end up feeling overwhelmed. Life abroad is different. Almost every little thing is different. And it can end up making you feel really out of your element.
Number 3: Know What Keeps You Grounded
With that in mind, this is really important. Know yourself, and get in touch with what helps you feel grounded. For me, home, routine, and time with friends are all really meaningful.
When I first moved into my apartment in Madrid, I spent countless hours getting it set up. My new roommates must have thought I was insane, sitting on the floor inside my bedframe with a brush and a pot of wood glue. But I was setting up my home base – a place I could always feel comfortable in when I didn’t feel that way otherwise.
Similarly, having structure in my weeks and some repetitive activities throughout helps me navigate the unexpected in living abroad because my routine is a reliable constant that I control. And being with friends reminds me that other people are experiencing similar things and sharing our fears and anxieties reminds us that we aren’t alone and helps us creatively problem solve. Things like these are important anywhere, but they become even more so when you’re abroad.
Number 4: Challenges Help You Grow
Now that I’m in my second year of teaching English in Spain, I can reflect on the ups and downs of my first year a bit more objectively. I had a great year – full of hard times. But I know that I’m better for it now. The challenges I faced and overcame while abroad leave me feeling more confident in my ability to handle the things that life throws my way. And that’s something I can take anywhere – back to the States or wherever else life may lead me.
Number 5: Sometimes You Just Won’t Understand – That’s Okay
Part of adjusting to a new culture is coming to terms with a different frame of mind. Every person on this earth uses their frame of mind to make judgments and decisions in their lives. Our frame of reference greatly shapes our frame of mind. Growing up as an American, I tend to think of things in an American way. This isn’t the only factor influencing my temperament and tendencies, but I do fall into the trend of being organized, fast-paced, and Type A. Coming into Spanish life with this framework, it has been difficult for me to understand some Spanish tendencies.
Over time, understanding comes easier as you learn more and more about the new place and the new culture you’re living in. But there are some things that you may never fully understand – and that’s okay. If you focus on accepting the differences as valid even if you don’t get to the bottom of them and carrying on with your life abroad, you’ll be just fine.